June 18, 2019

Reactions to Darfuristan (II)

Today, a reaction to Darfuristan from Sean Brooks, who works at Save Darfur and also blogs in his personal capacity.

Guest post by Sean Brooks

Ben Wallace-Wells’ essay on Darfur ends with the message “Khartoum is still Khartoum,” implying that despite all of the international activism surrounding the conflict in Darfur over the past six years little has in fact change. Omar al-Bashir and his regime still retain their tight, brutal grip on power and, through the security apparatus, still control the ultimate fates of millions of Darfuris.

This piece overall provides a good history of the complicated dynamics faced by the United States, the United Nations, and other actors in sending humanitarians and peacekeepers to confront the genocide in Darfur, supporting a peace process, and seeking justice for the perpetrators. On the question of peace versus justice for instance, Wallace-Wells includes a quote from Jerry Fowler – the Save Darfur Coalition’s president and a strong supporter of the International Criminal Court’s case against Bashir – stating that no silver-bullet exists.

My issue with this essay though, and other less well-researched criticisms of the advocacy movement

(see Mahmood Mamdani’s diatribes), is that it captures the fluidity and complexity of international politics and American activism to the gross neglect of important shifts and dynamics in Sudanese politics. The essay goes half-way by discussing the highly politicized nature of the IDP camps in Darfur today. By reading the complete essay though, one would think that Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP) have successfully rebuffed all international pressures and that they have once again securely protected their monopolization of power and wealth in the country.

But as those who follow Sudanese politics closely know, Khartoum is not the same Khartoum today. The regime has its back against the wall and is fighting for survival in a self-destructive way unseen in its twenty years of dominance. Such an analysis is at the heart of the International Crisis Group recent paper entitled, “Sudan: Preventing an Implosion.”

Consistent international condemnation and isolation of the Bashir regime’s egregious actions in Darfur, South Sudan, and even in Khartoum and other areas of North Sudan, have opened the door for Sudanese actors committed to human rights and a more democratic and liberal form of governance to speak out and challenge the regime. The recent demonstrations of the Juba forces and the emergence of grassroots groups like Girifna are the two most obvious examples.  Reported cracks within the NCP regarding the future of the party and the state also reveal that all may not be well within the ruling cabal. The elections scheduled for April 2010 could put to the test all of these changing dynamics, especially if the opposition and civil society continue to work together to demand greater freedoms and civil rights. The international community and activists should not take sides in these elections, but they should continue to demand greater political space to allow Sudanese politics to take place without resorting to violence and repression.

But what about Darfur specifically, where elections – especially staged elections – have the potential to exacerbate problems? Using the same logic as above, the constant international condemnation and isolation of the Bashir regime brought the Sudanese government to the negotiating table in 2006 and again in 2009. The interview in the essay with Ghazi Salah-Eddin, the chief NCP interlocutor with the United States and the West, points to this fact when he states, “We need, you know, a graduation certificate – something to hang on the wall.”

Having set up these encounters with Khartoum however, the failure of the international community has been its mishandling of the actual negotiations.  Wallace-Wells’ summary in the essay of the Abuja peace process in 2005 and 2006 tracks well with my own analysis published last year. Unfortunately, no one seems to have learned the lessons of these negotiations as the same mistakes continue to be repeated: lack of resources for the mediation; lack of international coordination; lack of capacity support for the rebel negotiators; lack of a clear role for civil society; the imposition of arbitrary deadlines, etc.  Just today, for example, we heard former South African President Thabo Mbeki call for a negotiated settlement before the April 2010 elections.

Despite repeatedly calling for such international support and political backing of the mediation efforts, the overall advocacy movement also bears some of the blame on this front.  As I recently wrote in a book review of Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors:

the advocacy movement must acknowledge that is has been slow to recognize its influence over the decision-making of Darfuri rebels who assume that the advocacy movement will remain quiet about their negotiating intransigence and human rights abuses in Darfur and neighboring Chad. With that said, though, some of the most useful efforts of the more mature Save Darfur Coalition have sought to provide platforms to Darfuris to tell their own stories and to provide time and space for Darfuris in the diaspora and civil society to articulate their concerns in future negotiations with the Sudanese government. The coalition funds and supports, for example, various efforts to engage these leaders in the peace process, given that both the Sudanese government and the personal ambitions and ideologies of Darfuri rebel leaders have stripped average Darfuri citizens of these opportunities.

We must also recognize that that the Darfur crisis relates directly to the issues of marginalization and disempowerment now finally being protested in the streets of Khartoum.  It’s for this reason that the African Union Panel on Darfur labeled the problem as “The Sudanese crisis in Darfur.” Half-solutions that only treat the symptoms of this crisis as manifested over the past six years in Darfur will not work.

So General Gration’s notion of a more complicated Sudanese picture than the one presented in the narrative of calculated, mass violence in 2003 to 2006 is correct. The dynamics have changed and, as always, the future for Sudanese is ultimately in their hands, and not the West’s. This does not mean however that the international community or international advocacy lacks a necessary role. Left alone, Bashir and the NCP would steal the elections next year, continue to repress internal dissent, and then with a newly legitimized government attempt to slowly sweep the situation in Darfur under the rug. Power and wealth would remain concentrated in Khartoum and, thus, new rebellions and wars in the periphery would occur again – even if the South successfully secedes.

Responsible and aggressive international mediation, with appropriate incentives and pressures, is thus an urgent necessity. What also remains needed is a constant amplification of the voices of Sudanese who are daily striving for a better future. It is their message relayed through activists and human rights organizations that will give the United States government and others in the international community the political will to continue on with its difficult tasks.  Without these inputs from Sudanese civil society leaders and the communities they represent, sustainable peace in Sudan is not possible.  And without their stories, the world will quickly lose the impetus and energy to deal comprehensibly with Sudan’s problems and may then quietly accept the pyrrhic compromises being pushed by the Sudanese regime.


  1. […] Bec Hamilton invited me to react to Ben Wallace-Wells’ essay, “Darfuristan,” in the current issue of Rolling Stone. You can read the full post on her great blog, “The Promise of Engagement.” […]

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